It's difficult enough to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle magic required to craft one of the best TV shows ever. But it's an entirely different -- and daunting -- challenge to give said show an ending that meets the amped-up expectations of obsessive fans.
So imagine the pressure felt by "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan and his collaborators as they pondered how to conclude the harrowing journey into hell taken by chemistry teacher-turned-drug lord Walter White (Bryan Cranston).
Succeed and you've heroically preserved your show's legacy. Screw up and you risk completely changing the way viewers think about what came before.
"It was very important to us to end it in a satisfying manner. We had a lot of personal anxiety over it," says Gilligan, who admitted that he second-guessed himself silly during the writing process.
Now, it's out of his hands and up to the fans to render judgment. Beginning Sunday, the last eight episodes of "Breaking Bad" roll out, providing the final chapter in one of prime time's most exalted drama series.
When last seen, Walt had amassed a virtual mountain of meth money and was set to retire. However, there were complications: Walt had become estranged from his longtime partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), and his marriage to Skyler (Anna Gunn) was in shambles.
Even more ominous: His brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), had finally figured out that Walt was "Heisenberg" -- the sinister drug kingpin he'd been chasing for so long.
Now, as the saga of Walt's evolution from "Mr. Chips to Scarface," as Gilligan has described it, winds down, plenty of questions remain: Will Walt get away with his murderous deeds? Will he be brought to justice, or even killed? And if he does meet his doom, could it possibly be at the hands of Jesse or Skyler?
Whatever happens, don't expect everyone to "hug it out," as Cranston joked during the recent TV critics press tour. No, if "Breaking Bad" follows the grim and edgy form established over the past six years, it won't be pretty -- or predictable.
But it apparently will move at a faster pace than usual. Sunday's breathtaking episode, titled "Blood Money" and directed by Cranston, jams on the gas pedal right from the start and never lets up. Get used to it. Gilligan has said this last set of tense episodes are packed with several moments that could probably serve as series-enders, though the "best stuff was saved for last."
Of course, the end of "Breaking Bad" means bidding farewell to one of the most distinctive characters ever seen on television. Unlike other renowned antiheroes such as Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan and Vic Mackey, Walter wasn't
bad from the start. When we first met him in Albuquerque, N.M., he was a depressed, mild-mannered high school instructor stricken with cancer.
Then, he gradually morphed into a ruthless, arrogant monster right before our eyes. It was both unnerving and mesmerizing.
"Just the notion of trying to take a serialized television series and change this character in a way that never had been done before ... I was aghast by that," said Cranston, recalling why he wanted so desperately to play the role that has earned him three Emmy awards.
Once Cranston did step into Walt's shoes, he never discussed with Gilligan where the character would wind up. Like the show's rabid viewers, he just wanted to go along for the ride.
"I never asked. I never wanted to know," he said. "The twists and turns of my character were so sharp that it wouldn't help me to know. So I was just holding on, much like the audience was, almost week to week. I would read a script about five to six days before we shot it, and this (season) was no exception."
Along the way, however, Cranston had plenty of time to consider the nature of good and evil. And he has concluded that there may a bit -- or a lot -- of Walt inside us all.
"In looking into this character and what happens to him and the transformation, I really believe that everybody is capable of good or bad," he said. "We are all human beings. We are all given this spectrum of emotions, as complex as they are, and depending on your influences and your DNA and your parenting and your education and your social environment, the best of you can come out or the worst of you can come out. I think, if given the right set of circumstances, or dire situations, any one of us can become dangerous."
Of course, by now we know Walt broke bad. Extremely bad. But what will be his ultimate fate? After all the second-guessing and neurotic fretting, Gilligan thinks he and his team have crafted a satisfying conclusion.
"I am very proud of the ending. I can't wait for everyone to see it," he said. "I am very cautious in my estimation of, in general, how people will respond to things. I hope I am not wildly wrong in thinking most folks are going to dig the ending."
Count Cranston among those folks.
"I wanted to be the mouthpiece for Vince. I wanted this series to end exactly the way he wanted it to end," he said. "I can stand here now and say that I'm really proud that it has. I think every fan will be satisfied and pleased with the appropriate ending. It's unapologetic and very 'Breaking Bad.' "
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
"Breaking Bad" has been so crazy good that it's virtually impossible to single out the five top episodes, but we gave it a shot anyway:
1. "One Minute" (Season 3, Episode 7): Hank beats the heck out of Jesse, who vows revenge. And then Hank nearly meets his doom at the hands of Tuco's insane cousins. It's one of the most intense and memorable climaxes to a TV episode ever.
2. "Crawl Space" (Season 4, Episode 11): Walt is pushed to the absolute brink when Gus threatens his family. As the hour unfolds, the sense of desperation and terror is so palpable that it feels like we're watching a horror flick.
3. "Face Off" (Season 4, Episode 13): It's an explosive ending for one of TV's greatest villains, Gus Fring, and a wickedly brilliant season finale that had us talking for weeks.
4. "Grilled" (Season 2, Episode 2): A harrowing hour for Walt and Jesse, who are abducted by the deranged Tuco and trapped inside the house of his paralyzed uncle, who can only communicate by tapping a hotel-desk bell. Ding. Ding. Ding.
5. "Pilot" (Season 1, Episode 1): We can't leave off the episode that started it all. The tone is set and the imagery is priceless: Walt out in the desert in his tighty-whities. Let the madness begin.